1992 was a memorable year for avid amateur recordists all over the world. Sony announced the first ever DAT portable, the TCD-D3, which offered better-than-CD quality digital recording on the move for around £600. However, contrary to common opinion, it was not the first DATman. Denon won the award ahead of Sony, but those who waited six months for the latter were not disappointed. Here was a computer that was extraordinarily comprehensive and capable, one of those fundamental inventions that has never been truly surpassed…
The Sony was remarkably compact, smaller than any of its competitors and even the model that succeeded it two years later, when powered by an AC converter and without its large BP-D3 NiCad battery pack. It was also better manufactured than it needed to be, as with many Sony first-generation goods. Rather than the plastic of the TCD-D7 and TCD-D8, the case was finely pressed from gunmetal grey painted aluminium.
It was also quite simple to use. There was none of the clutter of full-size DAT recorders, thanks to top-mounted transport controls and a big, clearly readable, and complete backlit display positioned on the lid. With thumbwheels for manual recording level and volume, push buttons for start ID write and display mode, and connectors for headphones, line in and out, microphone in and out, and mic phantom power, all minor settings were easily accessible.
The sound was the best part. Unlike earlier DAT portables, it combined a Bitstream analogue-to-digital converter with a multibit DAC, resulting in a polished yet extremely melodic sound. With a quality electret condenser mic, you could get fantastic live recordings — clear, fluid, and carefully detailed, it was a bootlegger’s dream come true. A fully charged battery pack provided two hours of recording time – more than enough for a marathon show with multiple encores! There was surprisingly little alteration from the source via its analogue ins, with only a tiny drying out and ‘tidying up’ of the sound, as well as a modest tugging forward of instruments at the extreme rear of the soundstage.
The digital copies were similarly of exceptional quality, but the machine’s digital inputs were limited. Special connecting leads were required instead of TOSLINK or coaxial connectors, and these were costly. If you had an extra £200, the optional RM-D3K digital adapter provided coaxial and optical ins and outs, timer compatibility, and complete infrared remote control with direct track access.
The SBM-1, which fitted into the D3’s digital accessory connector and provided even better Super Bit Mapped recording from analogue sources, was later released by Sony. This adaptor would extract every last drop from DAT’s 16-bit, 48kHz standard for £400, and the results were stunning, sounding virtually open-reel tape-like.
Despite being a well-rounded device, the Sony nevertheless had a few operating quirks that weren’t addressed until the TCD-D7 was released. There was no automatic level control for recording, which was inconvenient if you wanted to record interviews or seminars without worrying about levels. There was also no DAT’s important date and time stamping, nor the ability to power the computer on regular alkaline AA batteries – forget about mobile operation if you failed to charge your battery pack on the handy combination AC adapter/charger.
Many DAT fans, on the other hand, believe that its successor was a step backward. In comparison to the D3’s muscular all-analogue output stage, the TCD-digital D7’s controlled headphone driver produces very poor sound quality. There’s also the issue of long-term viability. The D3’s transport wasn’t particularly forgiving of bad DAT tapes, and it even had issues with the thin tape used in DAT120s at times, but it was a sturdy, metal diecast device that seems to have outlasted the plasticky TCD-D7s and 8s.
The TCD-D3 is a steal at secondhand rates of roughly £150 for a minter. Still, like with other DAT machines, double-check that the one you’re buying has been well-maintained. Otherwise, a new transport mechanism will set you back at least £250, plus several hours of labor — DATs aren’t exactly user serviceable! Pick a decent example, and you’ll wonder how you ever got by without the smartest, cutest, and most useful digital recorder of the 1990s.